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The Polar Express is a lavishly illustrated children's book by Chris Van Allsburg in which a young boy, straining to hear the silver bells of Santa's sleigh on Christmas Eve, instead hears a train's whistle. He goes outside to find a magical train, the eponymous Polar Express, which was sent to pick up the boy and hundreds of other children to go the North Pole and Santa's workshop. There, one of the passengers will receive "the first gift of Christmas".

Upon arrival at the Pole, the boy is chosen. When Santa offers to give him anything for a gift, he simply asks for a bell from Santa's sleigh, as they make the most beautiful music he has ever heard. The children all board the Express and hurry over to the boy's seat, asking him to sound the bell. Tragically, he had placed the bell in a pocket with a hole in it. The children leave the North Pole heartbroken.

On Christmas morning, the boy finds a tiny gift box with a note from Santa reminding him to "fix that hole". Inside is the bell, which the boy rings for his family. His sister is enchanted by the music but his parents tell him how sad that it's broken, because they can't hear it. The boy realizes that the only people who can hear the bell's ringing are those who still believe in Santa.

A beloved Christmas classic, in 2004 it was adapted into a full-length motion-capture CG film directed by Robert Zemeckis with Tom Hanks providing most of the movements and voice work.

The Film of the Book provides examples of:

  • Adaptation Expansion: Hoo boy.
  • Award Bait Song: "Believe"
  • Broken Record: Quite literally, where the "ding-a-ling" part from "Silver Bells" repeats over and over during one scene.
  • Catch Phrase: The boy says "Are you sure?" a lot!
    • "Aaaaall aboard! Well, ya coming?" "Where?" "Why, to the North Pole, of course! This is the Polar Express!"
  • Cool Train
  • Dead All Along: The Hobo double-subverts this; he disappears mysteriously after asking the boy if he believes in ghosts, then comes back about a minute later, leaving room for doubt regarding exactly what he is; then, his status as a ghost is finally clarified beyond the shadow of a doubt once he dematerializes at Flat Top Tunnel.
  • Extremely Short Timespan: Most of the film takes place at five minutes till midnight. Lampshaded by Know-It-All Boy, by the way.
  • Foreshadowing: "By the way... do you believe in ghosts?"
  • Ink Suit Actor: Steven Tyler.
  • Just Train Wrong: Sometimes so obvious that it borders on Willing Suspension of Disbelief, even if you ignore things like the vehicles bending around a mountain peak or a 100% decline with most likely ice-covered rail surfaces that no adhesion locomotive in the world can possibly climb (the Polar Express has to get back to Michigan somehow, mind you).
    • The length of the train keeps varying from five to about a dozen coaches. The inside scenes, however, show a consist of only three cars: the used toys car behind the locomotive, the car with the kids, and the observation car at the end.
    • On the ice surface of Glacier Gulch, the engineer seems to steer the Berkshire by rotating the drivers back and forth. Although the locomotive is always shown from the same side in this scene, this implies that he can control them like the tracks on a tracked vehicle, i.e. independently on both sides. Train wheelsets, on the other hand, are almost always rigid with both wheels firmly attached to the axle.
    • Averted in that the Berkshire is a real-life locomotive, even with her real-life number. It was obviously too tempting to put Pere Marquette #1225 on a Christmas train. Even the sounds were taken from the real #1225. On the other hand, if you want to nitpick, the Pere Marquette N-1 Berkshires were freight locomotives.
  • Mondegreen: An odd example, because the erroneous lyrics are actually sung by the artist. In the Award Bait Song "Believe," there is a line that says "Hear the melody that's playing." For some reason, there's a version of the song (which has been played on the radio) in which Josh Groban sings this as "Hear the lemody that's playing."
  • No Name Given: We never learn any of the children's names, except for Billy the Lonely Boy. Also, apparently Know-It-All Kid's name is Lenny.
  • Overcrank: During a song. Therefore, it's an (inadvertent) form of Truck Driver's Gear Change, in which the last verse of "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" sounds like Barry White is singing it.
  • Power Glows: Subtly used on Santa; it earned him the distinction of appearing "radioactive" to some viewers.
  • Shout-Out: "I've wanted to do that my whole life!". So did Doc Brown.
  • Talking to Himself: Santa, the Hobo, the Conductor, Hero-Boy, his father...
  • Write What You Know: The main protagonist is from Grand Rapids, Michigan, also the hometown of the book's author. In one scene, the train passes by Herpolsheimer's, which was (until the 1980s) a Grand Rapids department store that was known for its lavish Christmas displays.